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After Three Years of War, Syrian Childhoods Are Shattered

03/11/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

The war in Syria is about to enter its fourth year. The grinding conflict has got to be wearying for people on both sides, as well as those trying to broker a peaceful solution. But adult weariness, you recover from; Shattered childhoods, you never really do.

I remember taking my son Derrick to kindergarten for the first time, holding his little hand. As my 'big boy' headed inside with the teacher (and I noisily blew my nose), I marvelled at how much he'd developed in just four years of life. Flash-forward eight years and Derrick's entered adolescence, another time of dizzying change. His baby kicks have developed into a spot on a travelling soccer team. Those early crayon scrawlings have somehow magically morphed into essays and algebra.

Indeed, a lot can happen in just a few years. If the circumstances are right, the wonders of healthy childhood development can leave us shaking our heads in amazement. But alter the child's situation, and you threaten to change the whole outcome. If a girl or boy is living with pain, deprivation, loss and trauma, a few years can take on a whole different meaning. And the story can turn tragic.

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Three years on -- little hope of relief for Syrian refugee children.

For three years, World Vision staff members have sat with traumatized Syrian refugee children as they struggle to share stories you'll never find in a Canadian picture book. Their hands shake, and the words come out in fits and starts. Unthinkable words, describing the day they were shot in the marketplace. The day rockets bombarded their home. The day dad left to find food and never came back. The day mom was caught in the crossfire and died right in front of them.

You'd think that once would be enough to live any of these events, yet my World Vision colleagues report that Syrian refugee children experience them over and over again in their nightmares, waking up screaming.

There's also the deprivation: the chilled concrete floors, the grinding boredom, the filth of life without enough water to wash in. And the painfully empty bellies. Lack of proper nutrition means children get sick more frequently, often dangerously so.

Then there are the invisible effects that can curse these kids for the rest of their days. Take stunting for example. Stunting is the consequence of poor nutrition in the first 1,000 or so days of a little one's life, including the period spent in mom's belly. Those 1,000 days are the most critical developmental phase of a human being's life. And you never get a second chance to make sure it happens right.

A stunted child is several inches shorter than their genetic code dictates -- but that's just part of the problem. The absence of adequate nutrients affects the development of the little one's brain.

"It makes you want to cry, to see a stunted child struggling all through life," says Dave Toycen, President of World Vision Canada, "Because they didn't get the right nutrients during this critical development window. Syrian babies have done nothing to precipitate this conflict. Yet many will pay for it for the rest of their lives."

It sounds dramatic, and it is. The stunted child is sentenced to a lifetime of poorer cognitive capacity, and reduced ability to learn in school and as an adult. And for every year that the war rages on, more and more children will pay with a whole lifetime of stunting. Toycen says that the problem of stunted child development is growing in Syria because of the war.

The basic needs I could meet for my son Derrick by the time he started kindergarten -- simply because we live in a country of peace and privilege -- are out of reach for millions of Syrian moms who love their babies just as much. The pregnant mom who, out of love, gives her food rations to her children could well be condemning her unborn baby to a lifetime of challenges. It's an unthinkable decision that most moms here in Canada will never have to make.

We all want peace for Syria, for an end to this war, and the start of a new future. Syria's future leaders, its children, will need to protect and nurture the peace that we all pray for. They need to stand some chance of carrying that torch. As the war grinds on, we can't forget about those children -- not even for a moment.

To learn more about World Vision's work with Syrian refugees and how you can help, please visit www.worldvision.ca/syria

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